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Why U.S. Citizens Are Ignorant: Mass Media Analysis


Wherever you may travel in the world, citizens of different countries will always criticize one another for not being well informed about international events. These criticisms are often ill-founded, for citizens usually have a working knowledge of their own country’s news as well as that of neighboring countries with the most influence on their nation. For U.S. citizens, however, this criticism tends to be overwhelmingly shared throughout the world. And the stereotype that people in the United States tend to have little to no idea about what is going on in the world around them has some foundation. Using USA Today as a reference newspaper, I have tested three different hypotheses for why U.S. citizens are typically less informed about international events than they are about domestic events. I have compiled a raw data set, but also use statistical systems, which will allow me to “perform analytical tasks much more readily” (Inter-university 2009). I used a conceptual analysis framework for the types of articles and a relational analysis framework for the tone of the story. The analysis indicates that U.S. media outlets favor domestic news over international news, and focus on negative, sensational stories in their world coverage.

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Nearly 75% (74% of stories, 73% of news space) of the front-page section of USA Today featured domestic stories, indicating that U.S. news outlets tend to stress domestic news over international coverage. U.S. citizens gain the reputation of being narrow-minded, with significant knowledge of domestic events and limited knowledge of international events, simply because is less information. Taking into consideration more than one element can provide a more rounded picture of the content in question (Weber 1990). Thus, that U.S. citizens are narrow-minded is even more evident when because stories about Conan O’brien’s new television show take up around 40 inches of space, making it the biggest story in the section. The limited international coverage means that U.S. citizens largely have to look to dedicated foreign correspondence publications like the Economist to get timely and in-depth analyses of foreign events.

The first hypothesis

News outlets, especially newspapers, have often been accused of being transparently profit-driven. The result of which is a paper that caters mainly to what the reading public will buy, and censors what many might feel is newsworthy. With the steady market for tabloids and other gossip-type magazines, the media will often report disasters and crime (or Conan) over stories about foreign political procedures—something that interests a small group of people and may require additional background knowledge about the country. The hypothesis that the news outlets tend to report primarily negative stories is confirmed and demonstrated in the analysis of USA Today. 7 out of 9 international stories were decidedly negative, with the longest stories being about hurricanes, volcanoes, and a plane crash. This quantitative approach allows the best extrapolation and analysis of trends in this situation (Reswell 2009). To be sure, these are major international events, however, news providers will often jump from major disasters to major disasters regardless of the country with little to no follow-up. The result is a U.S. readership that primarily skims a body count in X country, but knows nothing else of the people or systems that function within that country.

The second hypothesis

While mainly negative stories are reported in the world sections, it should be noted that the same percentage of stories, 29, was rated positively both in international and in U.S. domestic news. This would seem to suggest an overall theme or pattern by the news media that substantiates the accusation of sensationalism. The real difference comes from accounting for neutral stories, which is 15% of domestic news, but 0% of international news. A more in-depth analysis may confirm an across-the-board trend, however, the analysis done here leads me to the conclusion that a focus on negative international stories does contribute to uninformed U.S. citizens.

The third hypothesis

The third hypothesis is that news outlets tend to focus their international coverage on Mexico, Canada, Western European countries, and countries where US military forces are engaged. From the analysis done, there is some evidence to support this theory: nearly half (4 out of 9) of the international stories featured Mexico, Canada, or a Western European country (England and France). In the front-page section, there were no stories about countries where U.S. military forces are engaged, however, it would not be difficult to imagine that these stories would contribute very little to a clear overall picture of the world. Stories about Afghanistan and Iraq are by nature often very limited to the actions of the “boys overseas,” and not of the greater geopolitical scene. Nevertheless, the 4 stories that were featured were very limited in scope and took up very little room with none of the stories being over 6 short, one to two sentence paragraphs, and one as short as 3 sentences. Using only a conceptual analysis “while extremely useful and effective for providing…information…is limited by its focus and the quantitative nature of its examination” (Busch et al., Colorado State University). A broader, more encompassing analysis might provide better support for this hypothesis.


U.S. citizens seem to share a collective tunnel vision when it comes to the news. They are often very informed about domestic policies and events, while noticeably ignorant about the world around them. Numerous factors may contribute to this phenomenon, one of the most notable being that the United States is a federation, thus interstate news is present where, for a European, international European Union news would be. Nevertheless, the media tends to feed these trends and while this paper is not aimed at causality, it is evident from the analysis that the media at least perpetuates this cycle. Because media outlets are profit-driven, when marketing to the general public they offer a greater amount of domestic news and fill in the international sections with sensational stories. The result is a U.S. citizenry that continues to have strong opinions and be well informed about domestic events while woefully unaware of international ones.

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Story Number US Domestic or International Content If International, Country or Region Covered Story is Positive, Negative, or Neutral Inches of Text in Story
1 US Domestic Positive 40
2 US Domestic Negative 12
3 US Domestic Positive 10
4 US Domestic Neutral 14
5 US Domestic Negative 10
6 US Domestic Negative 2
7 US Domestic Neutral 1.5
8 US Domestic Neutral 1
9 US Domestic Neutral 2
10 US Domestic Negative 2
11 US Domestic Negative 1
12 US Domestic Neutral 1
13 US Domestic Negative 12
14 US Domestic Positive 22
15 US Domestic Positive 12
16 US Domestic Neutral 14
17 US Domestic Neutral 16
18 US Domestic Neutral 8
19 International Singapore Negative 18
20 International Indonesia Negative 16
21 International Haiti Negative 11
22 International India Negative 25
23 International Costa Rice Negative 2
24 International Mexico Negative 1.5
25 International Canada Positive 2
26 International England Positive 1.5
27 International France Negative 6
28 US Domestic Negative 10
29 US Domestic Negative 10
30 US Domestic Negative 10
31 US Domestic Negative 2
32 US Domestic Negative 2
33 US Domestic Negative 2
34 US Domestic Negative 2
35 US Domestic Negative 3


Busch, Carol, Paul De Maret, Teresa Flynn, Rachel Kellum, Sheri Le, Brad Meyers, Matt Saunders and Robert White. 2005. Content Analysis. Colorado State University. Online.

Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR). 2009. Guide to Social Science Data Preparation and Archiving: Best Practice Throughout the Data Life Cycle, 4th Edition. Ann Arbor, MI.

Reswell, John. 2009. Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, And Mixed Methods Approaches, 3rd Edition. Lincoln, NE: SAGE Publications.

Turabian, Kate L. Et Al. 2007. A Manual For Writers Of Research Papers, Theses, And Dissertations 7th Edition. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Weber, R.P. 1990. Basic Content Analysis, Second Edition. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

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